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Writing a new narrative about Africa

THE TEAM: The 2015 TEDxEuston speakers with organisers

TED X Euston is much more than an event – this was the message that was carried throughout the seventh edition of one of London’s most popular TED franchises.

The one-day conference held on December 5 pulled a crowd of 600 to the Mermaid Conference Centre in Blackfriars, all eagerly anticipating what this year would offer.

 True to reputation, organisers did not disappoint in curating a line-up of some of Africa’s best leaders and thinkers, delivering talks that gripped, inspired and entertained.

 With the progression of the African continent at its core, the day’s Vision to Reality theme was explored through each speaker’s distinctive experience but also challenged attendees to rethink what role the audience plays in the larger context of the continent.

As speakers took to the stage, each talk was different from the last; everything from corruption to the creative industries was covered.

First to begin was journalist Mona Eltahawy who ignited the crowd with her declaration that “my body is my own”.

Her talk on African women as sexual beings in a social revolution, often a debate subdued, set the bar high for all those to follow.

“There is nothing uniquely African about corruption,” argued Liberian academic Robtel Neajai Pailey whose children’s book Gbagba talks about honesty and equipping young children with ethical tools.

“I wanted to equip children with the power of their own consciousness and ability to disseminate the mixed messages of adults. Children are generally honest until we teach them otherwise,” shared Pailey. 

While some talks illuminated the continued challenges affecting the continent, others chose to magnify the strengths.

The first winner of the BBC World News Komla Dumor Award, Ugandan journalist Nancy Kacungira said: “It’s time we start writing a new narrative that doesn’t focus on the struggle, but on progression.”

In her talk, the accomplished journalist championed the need for African journalists to deliver better coverage of the continent in order to generate a positive dialogue.

“It doesn’t make any sense to point fingers asking ‘why don’t you cover us fairly?’ when we don’t do ourselves any justice,” she added.

Closing the day was Kechi Okwuchi, a survivor of a 2005 Sosoliso plane crash in Nigeria, who went on to graduate with the highest honours from the University of St Thomas, in the US.

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Bring Back Our Girls campaigner: ‘We won’t rest until justice is done’

SPEAKING ON the 600th day since the mass kidnapping of school girls from Chibok, Nigeria, Dr Obiagelo ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili was one of the day’s most impactful speakers.

A senior economist and respected activist, it was a single tweet that would put her at the head of the #Bringbackourgirls campaign.

The grassroots movement focused the international gaze on Africa’s most populous country and begged the question: How could such a thing happen? And why was nothing being done about it?

“The most important thing for me was to escalate the demand so that it would compel our government to act,” Ezekwesili told The Voice.

“By putting my voice out there and standing for our Chibok girls I was basically amplifying the voice of their parents. The parents are poorer, weaker and so people just simply decided that if you’re poor and you’re weak then you basically don’t count. I have a problem with that philosophy which is why I was determined to start up concerning the justice that those girls deserve.”

The incident, which occurred on April 14 last year, was claimed to have been the work of Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organisation based in northeast Nigeria.

According to Amnesty International, the Nigerian military had four hours advance warning of the kidnapping, but failed to send reinforcements to protect the school.

The campaigner said: “Poor governance is really at the heart of a lot of the failings of governments to respond to issues and matters like this. I believe that the government was distracted by other things and in the past if government moved on on a topic everybody also moved on.

“But for once we said that we wouldn’t be moving on from this. We want government to act positively in order for there to be closure to the issue.”

More than 18 months later, the campaign continues in its quest to locate the whereabouts of an estimated 200 girls and the activist remains committed.

“I can’t be pessimistic, if I became pessimistic that would suggest there was some sort of closure but there is none,” she said. “The parents of our Chibok girls have not moved on. They continue to say to us ‘please don’t give up on our girls’ there’s no counterfactual evidence that would make us move on. Justice hasn’t been done and we need to see that justice is done.”

As well as marking the one-year anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping in April, early this year Nigeria recorded the most democratic election in its history since achieving independence.

“One thing that is clear is that the Nigeria of 2015 certainly wasn’t the Nigeria of 2014. Citizens have found their voice and there is no beating them down,” said the former education minister.

Activism in the country must continue with social media participation, insisted Ezekwesili. “A demand for accountability is at the heart of good governance and we’re going to see more and more of that, and governments simply need to learn how to work with it.”

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‘We must disrupt the status quo’

NAMED SOUTH Africa’s Most Influential Woman in 2012, Lindiwe Mazibuko was the first black woman in South Africa to be elected leader of the Opposition and the youngest parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliances (DA).

On venturing into political arena the 35-year-old shared: “I wouldn’t say that it was anything distinctive it was actually an accumulation of circumstance and frustration.”

Sharing her story on being politically engaged the trailblazer declared that the only reason she would return to politics was if others would follow her.

“We must disrupt the political status quo. There is no one waiting to save us. We must save ourselves,” said Mazibuko.
Working her way up the political ranks, in 2011, at the age of 32, Mazibuko took the decision to run for election to become the DA’s Parliamentary Leader and Leader of the Official Opposition in South Africa's National Assembly.  

Hoping to shake things up, the visionary said: “They were never challenging authority or using the rules of parliament to do innovative things like making sure the opposition regularly had debates and holding the president accountable for his record, I felt like they were stuck and the only thing that would unstick them would be a new young innovative leader. I also thought it was time for the party to diversify its leadership frankly.”

Under her leadership the party grew its share of the national vote from 16 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2014, shortly after Mazibuko announced a political sabbatical.

On her decision to walk away, she told The Voice: “I asked myself, if I want to be in government, what skills and experience do I think I need and can I get them just by sitting as the opposition and the answer was no, I couldn’t. So I decided to go to Harvard.”

“I’m going to spend a couple more years outside of politics, partially to seek and engage with friends, allies and supporters of my country, political party, set of values and my vision for my organisation partly to gain the kind of experience I think I need if I want to be a part of the movement to put the DA in government at national level one day and partially because I want to have a good personal life, a hinterland and politics when you’re young makes it difficult to do those things.”

The year has seen a surge in activism amongst South Africa’s student population, including protests against a rise in student fees and a wave of anti-colonial sentiment that resulted in the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town grounds.

While the former politician applauds the efforts, she asserted: “You can’t run a country by protesting every issue.”

A staunch advocate of the ballot box, she explained: “Not voting is one of the most dangerous things that young people can do especially in an emergent democracy where elites have become complacent. If you don’t vote you’re actually sending power to whoever happens to be in the majority at the time. That’s what the statistical outcome of that is because that’s one less vote they have try and get.

“So maybe you give the students what they want when they march and you teach them that the only way to get things done is to come and ask me, but I’m saying the way to get things done is to unseat me because I’m the wrong person for the job, and that’s what young people need to understand.”

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‘Black feminists don’t have privilege of just fighting misogyny’

WITH A halo of flaming red hair and two tattoos like war paint on the inside of both arms, journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy kicked off this year’s TEDxEuston with a bang.

The Egyptian-born author of the provocatively titled Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution opened her speech stating: “As an Egyptian, as an African, as a feminist, as a Muslim, as all the different hats that I wear together, I understand how difficult it is to talk about sex and vaginas.”

But the writer who gained worldwide notoriety when she was arrested and sexually assaulted in Cairo as she reported the protests in Tahrir Square is on a mission to speak out.

Referencing black feminist Audre Lord, Eltahawy said she learned the hard way that silence will not protect you.

Both her arms were fractured during her ordeal in 2011 and said it was a “real turning point. It really was a before and after.”

To reclaim her body, she tattooed Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex, on her right arm. On the left, is the name of the street where she was assaulted in Arabic calligraphy with the word ‘freedom’ underneath.

The 48-year-old said: “After I was assaulted, I was like: I could have died.

“If I had been an ordinary average Egyptian woman taken in [to custody] that night I might have been gang raped. I might have disappeared into a jail somewhere but for the simple fact that people know who I am. The hashtag campaign #freemona went global and was trending within 15 minutes. I believe when you have privilege, and I recognise I have the privilege of platform, you are obliged to fight ten times harder than those who don’t…I’m trying because I recognise I have all this protecting me.”

The experience “unleashed her”, she said. In an act of defiance she moved back to Cairo from New York so she could continue fighting for women’s rights.

Naturally, her frank approach to sexuality and promoting an “I own my body” message has upset people, including fellow Muslim women, as well as costing her friendships.

“I think it’s very important to recognise that sometimes when you are talking about things like sexuality and freedom and women being at the intersection of all the things that I talk about, when someone isn’t free and they hear someone saying, ‘look, we have got to fight for this’, it can sometimes make them uncomfortable. It makes them realise they have to do something and people don’t want to hear that, they want to be comfortable in the status quo. Sometimes it’s easier for them to say, ‘shut up, Mona” instead.”

She has spent the past months promoting her book and meeting with women’s campaigns in China, India and across Africa and thinks it’s important for women of colour to engage with other movements and the nuance that come with each of them.

“This word ‘intersectionality’ – we talk about it a lot but I don’t think people even know what it means anymore, it just becomes this catchphrase, you know?” offers Eltahawy. “But we really do lie on an intersection of so many things as women of colour… we don’t just have the privilege to just fight misogyny – we’re not white. I’m fighting misogyny and all the other isms I mentioned [in my talk].”

One of the ways women are getting their voices heard is through the Internet, explains Eltahawy, an avid Twitter user.

“Social media is helping women of colour break ground in ways that were impossible before: we don’t own the media, we don’t control the media…men run everything. I follow several black feminists on Twitter who hardly have any presence in the mainstream media, yet they’re incredibly powerful on social media. This is the future,” she said.

“In Saudi [society] women have no voice, no face, no mobility, nothing – yet on social media they have created a huge stir. Social media is an absolutely revolutionary tool when it is used by voices that have been marginalised. It’s incredible.”

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